Have you ever mixed mud? Silly question, I know. It happens to all of us no matter our skill level. And it can be a real source of frustration and angst.
Have you ever asked how to mix mud or why it happens? Perhaps some of you have heard, “If you mix three or more colors, your chances of making mud go up significantly.” There is some truth to this statement. However, there is an actual answer to the question “How do you mix mud?”
Let me pose a question: If you mixed the three tubes of paints listed below, which combination will result in mud and which will be less muddy? 1 or 2?
- Cadmium red light, cerulean blue and alizarin crimson
- Hansa yellow light, cerulean blue and ultramarine blue
Sample swatches are painted here.
2. From top to bottom, cerulean, Hansa yellow light, ultramarine blue
Next, this image shows the result of mixing cerulean with alizarin. At the top of the swatch is a purplish color. I thinned it out at the top with a little medium so that it is easier to see the hue. It is a delightful desaturated rose purple or eggplant color.
In this next image, I have added cadmium red light to the original mixture. Notice how muddy the color is.
Why do you think this happen?
Before moving onto the next combination, I want to define “clean” color versus “muddy” color. As I state in chapter 2 of my forthcoming book I Just Want to Paint: Mixing the Colors You Want!, a clean color is an identifiable hue. When you look at it, you know its family of colors. It may be bright or dull, light or dark, yet you can name the color, such as red, green, blue, or yellow, as well as gray-blue, gray-green, mustardy, etc.
With regard to muddy colors, they have no life to them. And this sense of lifelessness they don’t relate well with other colors in the painting. Some describe a muddy color as similar to dirty dishwater or yucky paintbrush cleaning water.
Now let’s explore the other three tubes of paint. The bright green mixture is a result of mixing cerulean with Hansa yellow light, as seen here.
I then added ultramarine blue to the original green mixture. The integrity of green is maintained, though it is darker and slightly desaturated. Why?
How Do You Mix Mud?
The key to mixing clean versus muddy colors is knowing how complementary colors impact each other when mixed.
As I demonstrate in blog post Complementary Colors are Dancing Partners, when complementary pairs are mixed they immediately start to desaturate or neutralize each other. As you will notice in this example where I have painted a chromatic scale of green and red, you can see how just a little bit of green starts to dull the red and on the other end notice how a small amount of red immediately dulls the parent color of green.
In the first combination above, where I mixed cerulean blue with alizarin, the resulting purple is somewhat desaturated because there is some yellow in cerulean. Since yellow is the complement of purple, this will start dulling the color. By adding cadmium red light, which has a lot of yellow in it, the mixture immediately turns muddy. The complementary colors were hard at work cancelling each other out.
In the second combination of cerulean, Hansa yellow light and ultramarine blue, the resulting green is not as desaturated because there is only a little bit of red –the complement of green — in ultramarine blue.
Note: These results of these sample mixtures will be the same no matter your medium.
Seeing the complementary colors in your paints is the KEY to learning how to mix mud when you want to and how to avoid it. With practice and concentration, it can become second nature.
Which combination of colors do you find frustrating? Let me know and we can break it down.
If you found this post helpful, please share it with your fellow artists.
Colorfully and gratefully yours,